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White House Witch-Hunt; President Obama Rebukes Trump; Former Trump Adviser Sentenced; Trump Asks A.G. to Track Down Op-Ed Author, Asks Senators to Create New Libel Laws Allowing Him to Sue Author; Source: Trump Aides Believe Search for Op-Ed Writer Has Narrowed Down to a Few Individuals; North Korean Propaganda Changes After Trump-Kim Summit. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired September 7, 2018 - 18:00   ET



WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: The breaking news tonight: the first former member of the Trump campaign sentenced in the Russia investigation.

After appealing for leniency, George Papadopoulos was ordered to serve 14 days in prison for lying to investigators about his Russia- connected contacts.

Also breaking, a new call by President Trump for the attorney general he loves to berate in public to do his bidding. He says he wants Jeff Sessions to investigate who wrote that anonymous op-ed about a resistance movement within the Trump administration.

This hour, I will speak with former U.S. attorney Preet Bharara. And our correspondents and analysts are also standing by.

First, let's go to our CNN political correspondent, Sara Murray, with more on the Papadopoulos sentencing.

Sarah, he got two weeks in prison and a fine.


It seems the judge did really believe that George Papadopoulos felt bad for lying to investigators, and so he will be incarcerated, but not for long.


MURRAY (voice-over): Tonight, George Papadopoulos, a former foreign policy adviser to the Trump campaign, sentenced to two weeks in prison and a $9,500 fine. Papadopoulos expressing regret for lying to investigators about his Kremlin-lined contacts, telling the judge "People point and snicker, and I am terribly depressed."

Papadopoulos' lawyer argued for leniency today, saying his client was naive and to fool.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: That whole situation, it's a rigged witch-hunt. It's a totally rigged deal.

MURRAY: But claiming President Trump's comments have done more to harm the Russia investigation than his client's lies; 31-year-old Papadopoulos now the first member of the president's team to be sentenced as part of the Russia investigation, and the White House and its allies have been eagerly to downplay Papadopoulos' role in the 2016 campaign.

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: It was a volunteer position and again no activity was ever done in an official capacity.

MICHAEL CAPUTO, FORMER TRUMP CAMPAIGN ADVISER: I have no idea why people would think that a volunteer coffee boy like George Papadopoulos would get to the top of this campaign.

MURRAY: It was Papadopoulos who revealed to a diplomat that he had been told the Russians had thousands of e-mails about Hillary Clinton. That helped set off an FBI investigation that eventually became Robert Mueller's special counsel probe.

During the 2016 campaign, the young adviser attended a meeting of Trump's new national security team, including Donald Trump and Jeff Sessions. Papadopoulos pitched a meeting between then candidate Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Sessions would later say he discouraged Papadopoulos from setting up the meeting.

But Papadopoulos recently contradicted that, saying Sessions actually seemed enthusiastic about a Trump-Putin meeting. As the Papadopoulos saga winds down, another Trump associate, longtime political adviser Roger Stone, is still under scrutiny.

Randy Credico, a comedian and radio show host, testifying before the grand jury Friday. Stone has claimed Credico was his back channel to WikiLeaks, which Russian intelligence used to circulate hacked information about the Democrats in 2016.

RANDY CREDICO, COMEDIAN: How did I ever the hell get involved in this mess is what I would like to know, a nice guy like me? What's a nice guy like me doing in a place like this?

MURRAY: Credico fielded questions before the grand jury mainly about his relationship with Stone, all with his dog Bianca at his side.

CREDICO: She didn't bark one time. She was so good in there.

(END VIDEOTAPE) MURRAY: Now, back on the issue of George Papadopoulos, Attorney General Jeff Sessions' attorney put out a statement today saying, "When it comes to the disagreement about what happened in that meeting during the campaign, Sessions stands by his testimony" that he discouraged Papadopoulos from setting it up.

BLITZER: Yes, and he only got two weeks in jail, a $9,500 fine. I guess he was very, very smart to plead guilty and cooperate with the special counsel.

Sara Murray, thanks very much.

Let's bring in our colleague Jake Tapper, the anchor of "THE LEAD" and "STATE OF THE UNION."

Jake, you had a chance to sit down with Papadopoulos for an extended interview. We're going to see a lot more of that later tonight. But tell us how that went.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Well, it's very interesting, because obviously one of the big questions, one of the big mysteries is once George Papadopoulos learned from this mysterious professor Joseph Mifsud that the Russians were claiming they had Hillary Clinton's e- mails -- remember, this is before anyone else knew that this had happened, this hacking and theft of e-mails.

The question is, who else did he tell? Did he tell anyone in the Trump campaign? There are reports in "The New York Times" that a former Trump campaign staffer, John Mashburn, remembers Papadopoulos sharing that information. But no one has seen any evidence of that.

Another interesting thing that happened, though, is, when I pressed him on that, he qualified it. He said he didn't remember telling anybody about it, but he couldn't say it for sure. He couldn't guarantee it.


So that remains an open question. The other thing that I thought was very interesting is that he said basically that Attorney General Jeff Sessions wasn't honest when he testified before Congress about that March 2016 meeting, when Papadopoulos suggested that candidate Trump and Vladimir Putin should meet.

Take a listen.


TAPPER: When did you first meet Donald Trump?

GEORGE PAPADOPOULOS, CONVICTED FELON: March 31 at the national security meeting.

TAPPER: There's a photo of you at the table. Candidate Trump is there. Senator Jeff Sessions is there.

What was discussed at that meeting in terms of Russia, in terms of meeting with Putin?

PAPADOPOULOS: As far as I remember, it was I who brought up anything regarding Russia. I was under the impression that's an individual I had met in Rome, the so-called professor, was able to provide high- level connections in Russia that would result in some sort of summit or meeting, mostly for a photo-op.

So I sat down, and I looked at the candidate. I looked at candidate Trump directly in his eyes and said, I can do this for you, if it's in your interest and if it's in the campaign's interest. And the collective energy in the room -- of course, there were some dissenters, but the collective energy in the room seemed to be interested.

TAPPER: The collective energy. Was Donald Trump interested?

PAPADOPOULOS: The candidate, he gave me sort of a nod. He wasn't committed either way, but I took it as he was thinking.

TAPPER: Senator Jeff Sessions was there too.


TAPPER: At the table.

What was his response?

PAPADOPOULOS: My recollection was that the senator was actually enthusiastic about a meeting between the candidate and President Putin.

TAPPER: So you say that then Senator, now Attorney General Sessions was enthusiastic about the idea of candidate Trump meeting Putin. But he has said the exact opposite. He says -- he testified before Congress saying that he -- quote -- "pushed back" when you raise the possibility of a meeting with Russia.

That's not true, you're saying?

PAPADOPOULOS: I don't remember this.

TAPPER: You don't remember him pushing back?


TAPPER: You remember him saying, this is a good idea?

PAPADOPOULOS: I remember him being enthusiastic about a potential meeting between the candidate and President Putin after I raised the question.


TAPPER: A lawyer for Attorney General Jeff Sessions says that the attorney general stands by his testimony before Congress 10 months ago, in which he said that he pushed back. Of course, Wolf, it's a question of who do you believe? Sessions has had to go back to Congress and amend earlier testimony, as you might recall. On the other hand, George Papadopoulos just pleaded guilty and was convicted and is going to jail for lying to the FBI.

So it's up to you to decide who you believe.

BLITZER: We have a courtroom statue of Papadopoulos in the courtroom kissing his wife. Clearly, only two weeks in jail, a $9,500 fine, if he had decided not to plead guilty and cooperate, and it had gone before a jury, he could have gotten -- and if he had been convicted, he could be serving a pretty long prison term.

TAPPER: Although remember Robert Mueller and the special counsel, they asked for up to six months in prison for lying to the FBI. They say that Papadopoulos, by lying, really impeded the investigation.

So the judge, in believing George Papadopoulos and his performed, demonstrated contrition, I wouldn't call it a rebuff to Mueller, but he certainly didn't take his advice and guidance in sentencing him for only six -- only two weeks, as opposed to six months.

BLITZER: Yes, good point.

All right, thank you very much, Jake, for that.

And an important note to our viewers. You can watch much more of Jake's interview later tonight. The "CNN SPECIAL REPORT: The Mysterious Case of George Papadopoulos," it will air at 11:00, 11:00 p.m. Eastern later tonight.

Meanwhile, President Trump commented on the Papadopoulos sentencing just a little while ago in a rather mocking tweet.

Let's go to our senior White House correspondent, Jeff Zeleny.

Jeff, tell us more about the president's response.


In a sign of how closely the president and certainly his advisers are watching all of these sentencings unfold, really, it was just a few minutes after the sentencing was announced, the president weighing in like this. Let's take a look at this.

He said: "Fourteen days for $28 million, $2 million a day. No collusion. A great day for America."

That's all he said, without elaboration, of course. We presume he is talking to the cost of this investigation at $28 million, but that is in fact incorrect. The entire cost of the whole Russia investigation is about $17 million or so. The entire our cost of Bob Mueller's investigation was around $7 million or so earlier this summer.

[18:10:03] But, despite all that, Wolf, it was certainly interesting the president is weighing in on this. Earlier today, when he was flying aboard Air Force One, he was asked about George Papadopoulos and his sentencing. He said, I don't know him, I barely know him.

He distanced himself from him. He said he was only at one meeting with him during the campaign.

But, Wolf, all of this is coming again as this White House watching all this so carefully, coming on the heels of the president asking his Department of Justice today to investigate and find the author of that "New York Times" op-ed.

One thing he didn't say, what crime did they possibly commit?


ZELENY (voice-over): President Trump asking Attorney General Jeff Sessions tonight to investigate and unmask the author of the anonymous essay in "The New York Times" that blasted him as unfit for office.

Speaking to reporters aboard Air Force One today, the president calling in a matter of national security, not simply as outrage over a senior administration official publicly saying he's ill-informed, impetuous, and reckless inside the White House.

TRUMP: I would say Jeff should be investigating who the author of that piece was because I really believe it's national security.

ZELENY: On a two-day campaign swing to Montana and the Dakotas, the president is telling his supporters that their decision at the ballot box in 2016 is being subverted by a government bureaucrat.

TRUMP: Unelected deep said operatives who defy the voters to push their own secret agendas are truly a threat to democracy itself.

I think it's backfired, seriously.

ZELENY: Yet the president made clear he is seething.

TRUMP: The latest act of resistance is the op-ed published in the failing "New York Times" by an anonymous, really an anonymous, gutless coward.

ZELENY: Struggling to stay "anonymous," but adding today the search is still on for the person responsible for the op-ed.

TRUMP: We're going to take a look at what he had, what he gave, what he's talking about -- also where he is right now.

Eventually, the name of this sick person will come out.

ZELENY: Asked how criticizing his presidency presents a danger to national security, he explained.

TRUMP: Supposing I have a high-level national security meeting, and he has got a clearance and he goes into a high-level meeting concerning China or Russia or North Korea or something. And this guys goes in. I don't want him at those meetings.

ZELENY: Two months before the midterm elections, former President Obama stepped back onto the political stage today with his own message to the anonymous Trump official.

BARACK OBAMA, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: They're not doing us a service by actively promoting 90 percent of the crazy stuff that's coming out of this White House, and then saying, don't worry, we're preventing the other 10 percent.

That's not how things are supposed to work. This not normal. These are extraordinary times. And they're dangerous times.

ZELENY: Obama has largely remained publicly silent about his successor, until today, in a speech in Illinois, where he called on Republicans to take notice of how Trump treats the rule of law.

OBAMA: It should not be a partisan issue to say that we do not pressure the attorney general or the FBI to use the criminal justice system as a cudgel to punish our political opponents.

ZELENY: Trump, who has not spoken to Obama since his Inauguration Day in January 2017, responded to Obama's hour-long speech like this:

TRUMP: I watched it, but I fell asleep.


TRUMP: I found he is very good, very good for sleeping.

ZELENY: But Trump made clear he's also worried about Democrats in the midterm elections, planting early seeds of an argument against impeachment.

TRUMP: We will impeach him. But he didn't do anything wrong. It doesn't matter. We will impeach him. We will impeach. But I say, how do you impeach somebody that is doing a great job, that hasn't done anything wrong?

If it does happen, it's your fault, because you didn't go out to vote.


ZELENY: So, Wolf, so far, that's all the president has said about the sentencing of George Papadopoulos.

And he was a former foreign policy aide. We have all seen that famous photograph of them from the campaign. And the president was telling reporters earlier today on Air Force One that's the only time he saw him. He said, I don't know him. I distance myself from him. He said, I saw him sitting on one picture at a table with me. That's the only thing I know about him, but I guess they caught him up in a couple of lies. That is in fact what happened. He pleaded guilty, of course, to lying to the FBI, Wolf. But it is certainly one sign the president made this tweet mocking this 14-day prison sentence just moments before he was set to take the stage at a campaign event in South Dakota.

He's out there now. We will see if he talks about that during this hour, Wolf, certainly, though, paying very careful attention to Bob Mueller's case -- Wolf.

BLITZER: As they should.

All right, Jeff, thank you, Jeff Zeleny at the White House.

Joining us now, our senior legal analyst, Preet Bharara, who was fired by President Trump from his post as the U.S. attorney in New York.


Preet, thanks so much for joining us. Lots to discuss.

Is there any legal basis for the president's demand that the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, open a full-scale investigation into who wrote this op-ed in "The New York Times"?


I mean, if you could contribute a number less than zero to whether or not there's a legal basis, you would have to use a number less than zero.

No crime was committed here. So there's no crime to be investigated. There was no disclosure of classified information. No one was even libeled in this piece of literature that was put into "The New York Times."

And even if there was a claim of libel, that's not a criminal matter the Justice Department is supposed to investigate. It's, plain and simple, a P.R. exercise by the president of the United States, who doesn't seem to understand how the First Amendment works, although he exercises his own right to free speech on a fairly regular basis, and in a way that's pretty destructive.

And so the idea that he would have his Justice Department investigate someone who simply exercised his or her rights of free speech is intolerable, I think, in a Democratic society. Now, I would like to know the identity of the person who wrote that article.

I would prefer that that person actually identify himself or herself and come out publicly and resign in a loud way. But that's not the same as saying that that person should be investigated by the attorney general of the United States.

BLITZER: Let me show you a bunch of people, top officials in the Trump administration, who deny they were the author of this article in "The New York Times." And I'm sure the president is looking very closely, not only at the denials issued by these individuals, but also who hasn't issue a denial.

You're a former federal prosecutor. How would you -- if you were on the case right now, how would you interpret it, what the president said today? Would you see that as an order from the president to launch an investigation?

BHARARA: Yes, I don't think so.

I oversaw an office of 450 people, 230 of whom were assistant U.S. attorneys, federal prosecutors. And I typically would not direct them to start, commence investigations by issuing a tweet on a social media platform. I would call them to my office, and we would discuss the propriety of going forward on a particular case or not going forward on a case.

And so I don't know if the president separately called Attorney General Sessions. It's my understanding is they don't speak very much and they're not very cordial with each other.

But if I were the attorney general of the United States, I would do what one of my former colleagues said earlier today, issue a one-word statement saying, no, I will not do that. And I don't know anybody with a law license in the Justice Department or outside the Justice Department who thinks that it's appropriate to launch a criminal investigation of someone who simply made some statements, whether you like them or not, under the cloak of anonymity, as is permitted by both the First Amendment and journalistic practice.

There's no basis for an investigation here. And I don't know if the president has separately in the proper course of how you manage agencies issued a directive, but I would not take it as an order if it was just on Twitter.

BLITZER: But the president goes even further. He's throwing out the word treason when he talks about this op-ed in "The New York Times."

Clearly, there's nothing treasonous about criticizing the president, even if you work for him. So how dangerous is this kind of rhetoric, because treason is a major crime?

BHARARA: Just like the president doesn't seem to understand what the rule of law means, even though he knows the words rule of law, or what the First Amendment means, even though he's aware of the fact that there is a First Amendment, he's aware of the word treason, which he seems to define, based on how he uses the term, as personal betrayal of him.

Personal betrayal of him is not equivalent to acting against your country, against an enemy who has been -- against whom war has been declared. So I think that the word treason, by the way -- and some people won't like my saying this -- it gets bandied about very easily and very casually also by people on the other side, people that don't like President Trump, because it has a technical legal term. It's one of the worst things you can call someone. As a legal matter, you're entitled to the ultimate penalty if you're convicted in a court of law of treason. And I don't think the fact that he thinks there's been personal treachery by someone who works in his White House or in his administration rises to the level of treason.

But he likes to put out, you know, very aggressive and provocative statements about his enemies, so much so that he likes to have his Justice Department investigate them and lay off on the people who are close to him.

BLITZER: The ultimate penalty if convicted of treason is the death sentence, a serious crime indeed.


BLITZER: On the one hand, the president wants Attorney General Jeff Sessions to go after his, the president's political enemies. On the other hand, he wants Sessions to lay off his friends.

Just a few days ago, as you know, Preet, the president criticized the attorney general for not blocking criminal charges against two Republican congressman. What do you make of that suggestion?

BHARARA: Well, I think it's outrageous. I think it's one of those outrageous things that the president has suggested, although I don't underestimate his ability to outdo himself next week.


I was very vocal about it.

As the day progresses, I have thought about it more and more, for a variety of reasons. So the Justice Department is not intended, as you put it in the frame of your question, to be the personal attack dog of the president of the United States.

We have neutral laws. We're supposed to have neutral and nonpartisan enforcement of those laws. And it doesn't matter if you're a Democrat or a Republican. So he develops a narrative that I think is very dangerous, and suggests to people that we are not what the ideal of America is supposed to be, that we're a little bit closer to a banana republic, where a despot takes control of the nation and starts to order people who have guns and arms and subpoena power to go after enemies.

And a couple other things that the president suggested in that tweet was that somehow this was an old, standing Obama era investigation of two Republican congressmen, one of whom is Chris Collins, the other of whom is Duncan Hunter. I can't speak to Duncan Hunter.

I happened to be the United States attorney in the Southern District of New York during the Obama era. And I can -- I can declare, I think appropriate to declare, that it was not an Obama era investigation. The basis for the charges against Chris Collins, as you can read in the public document, was based on conduct that was committed actually on the White House lawn in June of 2017, which was decidedly not the Obama era.

And the person who brought those charges, whose name is on the indictment, is the president's own Republican, handpicked, handpicked successor to me and to Joon Kim in the Southern District of New York.

So this narrative that somehow someone is exercising some kind of political vendetta against him that should have been stopped by his Republican attorney general, just because there are Republicans involved who have -- if you read the documents, look like they have committed very serious crimes, presumed innocent, but it does not look good for them, because there's an election coming.

It's fundamentally outrageous and against the rule of law.

BLITZER: And I will let you and our viewers know the U.S. attorney in California who filed the charges against Congressman Duncan Hunter also a Trump administration, a Trump appointee, a Trump U.S. attorney in California, going forward with those charges.

Preet, thank you so much for joining us.


BLITZER: Just ahead, we're going to have more on the Russia investigation.

A former Trump campaign adviser is sentenced, and the president is making new demands of his embattled attorney general.

And former President Obama warning Americans that the dysfunction of the Trump administration is not normal. We're going to talk about the impact of his first direct public rebuke of the man who replaced him in the White House.



BLITZER: We're following lots of breaking news.

And let's get right to our experts and our analysts, our correspondents.

Guys, thanks very much for joining us.

Let's talk a little bit about the attorney general of the United States.

You cover the Justice Department, Laura Jarrett, for us.

The president of the United States basically told them, launch a full- scale, potentially criminal investigation. Who wrote that article in "The New York Times." So what are you hearing? What's the reaction you're getting?

LAURA JARRETT, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, here's the thing. In order for the attorney general to launch an investigation, there has to be a crime. And neither the president nor anyone else in his administration has pointed to any criminal wrongdoing.

The attorney general can't just open an investigation because the president is embarrassed or that this shows some sort of disloyalty. And as Preet Bharara, the former U.S. attorney, pointed out on your program just minutes ago, unless there's some allegation that someone leaked something classified, which we have no evidence that happened, there is no there there for the Justice Department.

BLITZER: Because the president, Rebecca Berg, seems to think the Justice Department and the attorney general, they are there to serve the president's personal political agenda, other requirements.

Does he not understand the role of the Justice Department and the attorney general?

REBECCA BERG, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: That's what it seems like, Wolf.

I mean, just within the past week, we have another data point you can look at, which was the president's tweet about Chris Collins and Duncan Hunter, the two congressmen who were recently charged with crimes by the Justice Department.

And President Trump suggested in his tweet that the Justice Department should have held off on charging those two men until after the election, considering Republicans' political prospects in the midterm elections.

And so time and again, the president has shown a complete disregard for the independence of the Justice Department and has seemingly ignored or failed to understand that the Justice Department doesn't work for him personally. He is not the chief executive of this government.

They are working for the American people.

BLITZER: Yes. And in that tweet, he was calling it the Jeff Sessions Justice Department, berating Jeff Sessions, that doesn't Jeff Sessions understand that the Republicans need every vote they can get? These two congressmen who have been charged with serious crimes, they had easy elections, now not necessarily all that easy.

So he's clearly upset about that.

And he goes, Susan -- Susan Hennessey, the president also suggested that whoever wrote that article in "The New York Times" may have committed treason. So explain to our viewers, because you're a legal expert, what that means, treason.

SUSAN HENNESSEY, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, as a technical legal matter, treason requires that we actually be at war.

So you wage war against the United States or you provide aid and comfort to the enemy. So this is clearly not a situation in which actual legal treason is at issue.

Beyond that, though, it's -- whenever we think about treason, we think about treason in sort of the colloquial sense as a betrayal of the United States. Donald Trump is not the United States. Donald Trump is just a guy who works for us.


And so whenever Trump equates a personal betrayal, a personal embarrassment with betrayal of the nation, whenever he talks about it being a national security issue, as opposed to an embarrassing talking point for the White House, that really is a profound erosion and a real misunderstanding about the fundamental role of the president of the United States in our constitutional structure.

BLITZER: And Ron Brownstein, I want you and our viewers to listen. The president only a little while ago, he spoke out once again about all of this. Listen to this.


DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Hey, Mike, and John, could you do me a favor? Create some libel laws that, when people say stuff bad about you, you can sue them, and if you're right, you win? Would you please -- would you please do that? Wouldn't that be nice?


BLITZER: Talking about Mike Rounds and John Thune, two senators, but go ahead. What did you think?

RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, first of all, the way he talks about treason and how often he uses that word really underscores my belief that, in many ways, he sees himself as a wartime president; only that the war is against, essentially, blue America and all the Americans and parts of America that are outside of his core coalition.

But on the libel laws, it fits in with, you know, Rebecca was talking about and everyone else, kind of this broader pattern that we have seen since day one. That the president works to delegitimize, hollow out from the inside, any institution that he believes can threaten him or resist what he wants. And that ranges from the independent judiciary to the media.

And, you know, it is interesting that you have the two Republican senators up there on the stage, having to kind of now answer what they think about that. They have allowed themselves to be pulled into these waters day by day, week by week, by not resisting or raising objections each time that the president shatters a norm about the execution of -- the use of executive power or the independent administration of justice. And I think he has correctly taken the message that, no matter how far he goes, they will paddle after him.

BLITZER: You know, Susan and Laura, you're both lawyers, so you appreciate the president saying to these two Republican senators, "Do me a favor. Create some libel laws that, when people say something bad about you, you can sue them. And if you're right, you win." Create some -- he wants the Senate to take up the whole issue of libel.

HENNESSEY: Right. And whenever the president talks about bulking up or creating new libel laws, he's talking about an assault on the First Amendment. The way we think about libel, we bifurcate it. We think about two different groups of people: private individuals that are entitled to additional protection, and public individuals that are only entitled to a very, very limited amount of protection.

And this is in order to protect the First Amendment, to protect the rights of a free press, because it is so important in order to hold our leaders accountable.

Donald Trump is no longer a private person. He is a public individual. He is accountable to the American people. And so whenever he talks about sort of using Congress and wanting Congress to protect him, it's sort of, it's part and parcel of this larger theme of him not being able to understand that, you know, he's not just Donald Trump anymore. He's the president.

BLITZER: Go ahead.

LAURA JARRETT, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Libel laws are a function of state laws. There's always this constant push and pull where he throws around legal terms and legal concepts on things that don't apply. It's just -- it's kind of confounding. I think he uses it as sort of an imprimatur of authority or something that sort of adds some gravitas on things that really have no applicability whatsoever.

BLITZER: You would think, Rebecca, the president would be well- briefed about libel laws in the United States, what treason actually means, but he's throwing out all these ideas, apparently because he's seething, not only -- seething not only because of this op-ed in "The New York Times" but also the Bob Woodward book that's about to come out officially. We've all been seeing some excerpts in recent days.

And I take it he's still very upset about the very, very extraordinary funeral that was accorded to Senator John McCain.

REBECCA BERG, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right. It's been a difficult week or so in the world of Donald Trump, from his perspective. He feels, and there have been other points in his presidency where this has also -- this has also been the case. It's sort of this bunker mentality for Donald Trump right now. He feels like he's under assault from all sides. And when he feels trapped in that way, he starts to lash out. He starts to go on these rants, as we've seen at some rallies. And, you know, bring up these legal terms that maybe he's not serious about Congress wanting to pass these laws, but it's still disturbing to hear this language from the president of the United States.

BLITZER: Go ahead, Ron. BROWNSTEIN: You know, Wolf, it's interesting. To think about the political impact of all this, what -- every time the president, you know, goes down one of these roads of kind of threatening the independent administration of justice, he basically justifies that, by arguing that "There's a deep-state conspiracy to thwart me, and by thwarting me, they are attempting," he says to his supporters, "to kind of force you back into a corner, to sublimate you." And there may be an audience for that argument in parts of his coalition.

[18:35:00] The problem they've got is that that argument simultaneously increases the anxiety among many of the suburban swing voters who, as we talked about before, are critical in the battle for the House, that there are no effective checks on this president.

So these kinds of very polarizing kind of vague legal arguments that he's making may simultaneously have the effect of activating some of his supporters, but also driving away more of the swing voters who are the principle concerns for Republicans in trying to hold the House.

BLITZER: Really extraordinary developments that's unfolding today.

Everybody, stick around. There's more news we're following. The former president of the United States, Barack Obama, breaking his silence with a blistering indictment of the Trump era.


BARACK OBAMA (D), FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It did not start with Donald Trump. He is a symptom. Not the cause.



[18:40:34] BLITZER: Former president Barack Obama is breaking his silence, jumping into the midterm campaign with a sharp and rare critique of President Trump.

Our national correspondent, Athena Jones, is on the campus of the University of Illinois, where the former president spoke to students.

Athena, we can expect to hear more, I take it, from the former president as we get closer and closer to the midterms, right?


Today's event is one of several planned for the next couple of months. And an Obama aide told me the president worked on this speech up until the last minute. He was making edits on the flight here. And after months of staying out of politics, he seemed eager to reengage in what he called a pivotal moment in American democracy.

We got a sampling of some of these themes when he eulogized Senator McCain last weekend, but he went much further today, touching on a number of recent headlines and mentioning President Trump by name in a political speech for the first time since leaving office.


OBAMA: The politics of division and resentment and paranoia has, unfortunately, found a home in the Republican Party.

JONES (voice-over): President Obama making his first foray into the midterm election season, delivering a blistering rebuke of his successor's political tactics and calling him out by name.

OBAMA: It did not start with Donald Trump. He is a symptom, not the cause. He's just capitalizing on resentments that politicians have been fanning for years.

JONES: The former president, who has not spoken with the current president since inauguration day, warning the country is at a critical moment with America's democracy at stake and urging ordinary people to get involved.

OBAMA: You need to vote, because our democracy depends on it.

A glance at recent headlines should tell you that this moment really is different. The stakes really are higher. The consequences of any of us sitting on the sidelines are more dire.

JONES: He slammed Republicans in Congress for failing to act as a check and balance on Trump.

OBAMA: Republicans who know better in Congress, and they're there, they're quoted saying, "Yes, we know this is kind of crazy." Are still bending over backwards to shield this behavior from scrutiny or accountability or consequence.

JONES: The former president also referenced the "New York Times" op- ed written by an anonymous author who said there are people working inside the administration to thwart Trump's worst impulses.

OBAMA: That's not a check, I'm being serious here, that's not how our democracy is supposed to work. These people aren't elected. They're not accountable. They're not doing us a service by actively promoting 90 percent of the crazy stuff coming out of this White House. And then saying, "Don't worry, we're preventing the other 10 percent!"

JONES: Obama argued that preventing nearly 3,000 Americans from dying in a hurricane and its aftermath, a reference to Hurricane Maria's toll on Puerto Rico, should not be a partisan issue. And neither should protecting freedom of the press or denouncing hate, a reference to Trump's much-panned "both sides are to blame" response to last year's violent protests in Charlottesville, Virginia.

OBAMA: We're sure as heck supposed to stand up clearly and unequivocally to Nazi sympathizers. How hard can that be? Saying that Nazis are bad?

JONES: And he talked about the importance of showing up. Not only on the campaign trail, reaching voters in all corners of the country, but also showing up at the polls.

OBAMA: These are extraordinary times. And they're dangerous times. But here's the good news. In two months, we have the chance -- not the certainty, but the chance -- to restore some semblance of sanity to our politics. What's going to fix our democracy is you.


JONES: Now, today's speech kicks off a campaign swing that will take the former president, still perhaps the most popular spokesman for the Democratic Party, to Orange County, California, tomorrow to rally with seven House Democrats who are running for the House.

He's also going to be stumping in Pennsylvania and Ohio in the coming weeks.

And as for President Trump's response to the message we heard today from President Obama, Trump said, quote, "I watched it but fell asleep. I found he's very good for sleeping" -- Wolf.

[18:45:15] BLITZER: Athena Jones in Illinois for us. Athena, thank you.

Just ahead, Kim Jong-un's regime cuts down on the anti-American propaganda. CNN's Will Ripley is back in Pyongyang, where the mood has apparently changed since the summit between President Trump and the North Korean dictator.


[18:50:10] BLITZER: We're getting in breaking news in the White House search for the anonymous writer of that "New York Times" op-ed slamming the president.

Let's quickly go to our Jeff Zeleny. He's over at the White House.

What are you learning, Jeff?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, we're learning tonight, the president continues what some describe as, frankly, an obsession over finding out who is the author of the anonymous op-ed in "The New York Times" this week.

Our Jim Acosta is reporting that at least aides to the president believe they have narrowed this down to a few people, it could be. But, Wolf, there's no question the president simply may not be convinced at that. He, of course, called on his attorney general today to investigate this for the DOJ to launch an investigation to unmask this author.

But we are learning that at least aides close to the president believe they are narrowing down the possibilities of it. Wolf, it is just possibilities. We may never know exactly who wrote that. So, it's an open question if aides to the president are trying to appease him by saying, look, we may know who it is or if they actually have a lead on this. But, certainly, the president has been stewing about this all day

long. He talked to reporters about it on Air Force One. Now, he's flying back to Washington here and he'll be here in a few hours or so. Certainly watching all of the news coverage of this again as well, Wolf. But they believe they are narrowing it down, but, boy, back to the long list is certainly long.

So, we'll see if that person is ever identified, Wolf.

BLITZER: We'll see what happens. All right. Jeff Zeleny, thanks for the update.


BLITZER: Just ahead, a CNN exclusive. We're about to go inside of North Korea to see what has changed since the Trump-Kim summit.


[18:56:21] BLITZER: There's been a subtle but significant change in North Korea since the dictator Kim Jong-un met with President Trump in Singapore in June.

Let's go to CNN's Will Ripley. He's in the North Korean capital for us.

Will, this is your 19th assignment in Pyongyang. So, what differences are you seeing on this trip?

WILL RIPLEY, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, there's been a striking change in the tone of North Korean propaganda you see on the streets here in Pyongyang. From missiles and tanks aimed at the United States to messages about North Korea growing it economy.

But when you talk to people here, they say that their burning hatred for America won't go away overnight.


BLITZER (voice-over): At the height of U.S./North Korea tensions last year when fire and fury rhetoric was at a fever pitch, anti-American propaganda was everywhere, from missiles blowing up the capitol to a personal attack on President Trump.

(on camera): This propaganda says the workers are motivated by the burning hatred for the United States and, in fact, it reads, let's tear apart the mentally deranged U.S. President Donald Trump.

(voice-over): What a difference a year makes. This is the first time back in Pyongyang since President Trump's meeting with Kim Jong-un. Almost three months since the June 12th meeting, North Korea nuclear program is still here. What is not here, at least as far as we can tell, images like this.

(on camera): A year ago when we were here in Pyongyang, you couldn't turn a corner without seeing anti-American propaganda. Now, you're seeing much more of this. This is about building a socialist economy, even the missile imagery itself has kind of faded into the background.

(voice-over): Government guides are always with us in North Korea. Showing us exactly what the state wants us to see. This time it is all about the economy.

(on camera): Nice to see you again.

(voice-over): I visit the same Pyongyang silk factory and the same worker Kim Jong Hyang I first met two years ago.

(on camera): A lot of people would describe to me emotions like burning hatred when they talked about America. Do people still feel that way now or is it changing?

(voice-over): Our burning hatred won't go away overnight, she says. Americans are approaching us diplomatically but they're not very sincere.

Workers like Kim used to be surrounded by anti-U.S. slogans, not any more.

(on camera): This one here said compete with the world, challenge the world, overtake the world. A lot different than nuclear annihilation.

What happened to all of the signs?

(voice-over): Those posters were everywhere, she says. They may be gone now, but that hatred is still deep in our hearts. We don't have any illusions about the Americans. We can't let down our guard.

Here in North Korea taking down posters is much easier than building up trust.


RIPLEY: That fundamental lack of trust underscores the difficulty facing the American nuclear negotiators as they try to deal with the North Koreans, because the North Koreans want security guarantees and a peace treaty before they'll even consider giving up their nukes. The U.S. says the peace treaty shouldn't come until the end.

But there have some promising developments. President Trump says he is expecting yet another letter, a positive letter he thinks from the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. They've been using very colorful, you know, pleasant language back and forth with each other, whether it'd be on Twitter or their communications but that hasn't trickled down on the ground here yet, Wolf.

And, by the way, we're expecting to see not only a military parade here in Pyongyang this weekend but the first mass games in five years, tens of thousands of people flipping cards in the May Day Stadium sending their country's message to the world. It should be extraordinary.

BLITZER: Great reporting. Will Ripley in the North Korea capital Pyongyang, thanks very much. We'll stay in close touch. And thanks very much for watching.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.